Chronic trauma: psychological and physical impacts.

In my previous post I covered how our brain and body respond to big T and little t traumatic events. You can read about that here. I briefly mentioned that chronic trauma creates different problems for our mind and body. I will expand on that in this post.

I also explained in my previous post how our brain responds to a traumatic event. Our brain responds the same way with ongoing traumatic events. The left side shuts down, pieces of memory are fragmented, etc. However, when trauma events happen repeatedly, parts of our brain get overworked and continuously overwhelmed. 

Chronic trauma impacts on memory.

The cycle of the left side shutting down happens each time we experience a traumatic event. This can wreak havoc on our brain’s ability to properly store memories. The right side of our brain is unable to talk to the left side to consolidate and store those pieces of memory properly. This directly impacts long-term and short-term memory. Recalling memories prior to and after the trauma can be challenging. Even things like remembering appointment times, where you set the car keys, or what you were supposed to grab at the grocery store can also be impacted.

Chronic trauma impacts on the amygdala.

Another important part of our brain that is directly impacted by chronic trauma is the amygdala. The amygdala is the brain’s emotional reaction center. When we experience a traumatic event, it evokes a strong emotional response. The amygdala acknowledges that emotional response and sees it as crucial for our survival to remember the event and emotional response it evoked. The amygdala also plays a role in activating the fight or flight response. Chronic trauma can hijack our amygdala. Suddenly we see everything as a threat, we have a strong emotional response to even the smallest of things, and we are constantly in fight or flight (survival mode).

Chronic trauma impacts the amygdala and other parts of the brain.

Chronic trauma impacts on the HPA axis.

When the fight or flight nervous system response is continuously activated, it signals the HPA axis to start pumping cortisol through our bodies as a survival mechanism. This is great if we are in a life-or-death situation and need that cortisol and adrenaline to get out, but exposure to ongoing traumatic events can create what is called HPA axis dysfunction. I expand on this more here.

Excess cortisol can lead to problems such as:

  • weight gain: our bodies store food intake as fat cells when in survival mode so we have reserves when it is time to act on a threat.
  • irritable bowel syndrome and digestion problems: our bodies slow down digestion and other “non-essential” systems to have more energy to put towards pumping blood to our heart when we are in survival mode.
  • anxiety: when our brain is telling us there is a threat, anxiety is triggered to alert us and prepares us to act.
  • insomnia: survival mode makes it difficult to sleep as we feel we are constantly under threat. We don’t sleep if there is a hungry bear trying to get us.
  • hyper-vigilance: if our brain is constantly sounding the alarms that there is a threat, we will always be alert and guarded.
  • inability to relax: we can’t let down our guard.
  • muscle tension: survival mode has us geared to act. Muscles are tense in preparation for fight or flight. This can lead to chronic tight muscles.
  • migraines: high stress levels can increase chances of migraines.
  • chronic fatigue: at a certain point our bodies will begin to shut down due to high stress levels, anxiety, and hyperarousal.
  • autoimmune disease: recent research has shown that high levels of stress can negatively affect our immune systems and lead to impairments in functioning.

As you can see from that list, every part of our body is impacted by chronic trauma. Research has shown that many of these physical symptoms are alleviated when we heal from the trauma. You can pull the weed, and it goes away for a short time. But it will always return until you get down to the roots. The physical symptoms can be mitigated for a short time, but lasting relief comes from healing the trauma.

Steps you can take:

  • Find a therapist
  • Yoga
  • Meditate
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Journal
  • Practice deep breathing
  • Recite positive affirmations